Books on IcelandTwo more books on Iceland done and dusted, and I have done well with my reading pile and enjoyed my little project, even if it did seep into June! These two are pretty different, one rooted in life within a corner of Iceland lived by people who barely raise their eyes from the soil, and one by an English Icelandophile who travels regularly between the two countries and spends time exploring every area of the island(s) of Iceland. One is set around 1900-1920, the other is set a century later. But they both have interesting things to say, and I enjoyed reading them both very much.

Edward Hancox – “Iceland Defrosted”

(17 March 2014)

Culled from blog posts and magazine articles, this is a lively and engaging read by an English Icelandophile who visits regularly, has Icelandic friends, attends various festivals and musical performances, and travels regularly between the two countries. This means that you get more of an insider’s view of the island and its inhabitants than I really got from “Names for the Sea”, even though the author of that book actually lived in Reykjavik for a year. Maybe it’s because Hancox seems more enthusiastic about the place – and this certainly calmed some of the nerves I had about travelling there.

He’s very keen on the music scene and interviews a fair number of Icelandic musicians, and also takes a trip around most of the tourist areas and other sites of interest, sometimes a bit grumpily but always entertainingly, reporting honestly on his experiences, good and bad, but taking them as they come and being generally cheerful. His enthusiasm for the country shines through and makes this a pleasant and amusing – but informative – read.

Halldor Laxness – “Independent People”

The tale of farming folk in Southern Iceland, I got a bit worried about this one when a few people I know reported to be more than a little grim. It is the story of one man and his reluctance to appease the ghosts which apparently haunt the land he saves for half his life to buy – and the somewhat doomy results of that refusal. There are ghosts, unpleasant things that happen to sheep, struggles with the cold and damp, descriptions of the arrival of cooperatives in the area … but this makes it sound much darker than it actually is. And the insularity and not looking up from the land is there, but then there’s a very interesting discussion of their attitude to the First World War and the countries of Europe which spread its reach much further, as well as the odd character who has been to The West (America).

I think I was probably helped by my immersion in at university and subsequent re-reading of the Icelandic sagas, as the language, tone and events of the book closely resemble these works, presumably intentionally. In fact Bjartur, the main character, is prone to quoting old verse and the sagas himself on occasion. So the connection with the land, terse passages explaining great swathes of action, and, indeed, the rather black humour, were rather familiar to me and didn’t get in the way of my reading experience.

To say I enjoyed this would be an odd thing – it’s a pretty harsh story, with fate individual and collective playing a major role, some fairly nasty goings-on (nothing I couldn’t cope with though) and some grim times, but it’s marvellously written and so atmospheric, and I will certainly be looking out for more works by this amazing writer.